Adopting a dog is a big decision. Like many of life’s finer upgrades, no matter how much research and preparation you do, there’s an element of risk and uncertainty involved.
In addition to the things you can plan for—the time commitments, the veterinary costs, the higher fence—there are plenty of other variables. Will the new dog get along with the queen-of-the-house cat? How will he handle a rainy day indoors? Does he really not bark, or is he just being shy at the shelter?
With this in mind, a trial adoption is an attractive option to many pet parents, and some shelters have started offering “weekend fostering” programs to help families see if it’s a match. But while these temporary placements may be beneficial in extreme circumstances, in general, rescue experts discourage looking at fostering—and, in turn, adopting—as a try-it-on-for-size commitment.
“I feel that potential adopters are less committed to an animal if a trial run is offered,” says Kristen Gerali, director of ALIVE Rescue in Chicago. “Many of the shelter dogs have some issue in one form or another, and if the dog is not perfect for the sleepover, they are more likely to get returned. I’ve found that dogs need a good two weeks to adjust in a home before they’re comfortable.”
Deanne Schmidt, manager of lifesaving at the Pennsylvania SPCA, agrees that these short-term programs are, in general, more beneficial to humans with cold feet than to dogs with high hopes.
“Dogs often become depressed when they come back,” she says. “If it’s a trial adoption, you’re probably not going to put the same work into it and give the dog the best chance for success. We don’t even recommend introducing pets the same weekend […] you’re really not going to get a feel for how this dog fits into your family.”
How Fostering Fits In
Although trial fostering has its problems, true foster families—those which provide care for animals in their homes until a permanent placement is found—are integral to many shelters. Not only does fostering open another in-demand cage, but it allows animals to prepare to live in a home environment again and protects the most vulnerable pets from sickness.
“A home environment is always best for a cat or dog who is waiting for a forever home, whenever possible,” says Gerali. “If an animal has issues with separation anxiety, house training, shyness, leash reactivity or anything else, being in a foster home gives the animal the time and love it needs to improve on these issues.”
To increase the impact and reach of foster programs, many shelters have started to think outside the box. Once a novelty in China and Japan, cat cafes—coffee shops that house shelter cats, to the delight of customers who often make reservations weeks in advance—are popping up across the U.S., from Oakland’s Cat Town Café to Philadelphia’s Kawaii Kitty Cafe.
At Alive Rescue, approved foster homes are permitted to host weekend sleepovers and volunteers take dogs in the shelter on day trips. At the Pennsylvania SPCA, Schmidt and her staff are getting crafty when it comes to foster opportunities. They’re currently exploring a partnership with retirement communities, as well as one with teachers on summer break. At the shelter, many staffers share their space with “office fosters.”
“If an animal does poorly in the kennels, we do what we call ‘office fostering.’ I generally always have an office foster—sometimes it’s a mom cat and her babies, or a dog with behavior issues that needs some work in a calmer environment,” says Schmidt. “Dorito was a terror here, scared out of his mind and snapping. But he was a totally different dog outside the kennel.”
Dorito warmed up even more in his forever home—Schmidt’s home, that is. Because while fostering isn’t designed to lead to adoption, sometimes you can’t stand in the way of true love and feisty Chihuahuas.
“At the end of the day, what we really want everyone to know is that there’s always a great need for fosters,” says Schmidt. “If you think you’re interested, we’d love to talk to you.”